The Tuatha Dé Danann
While Greek deities like Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon are thought of as common knowledge, and Marvel has brought Norse legends like Thor and Loki into popular culture, most people outside of Ireland know little about Irish mythology. It’s even more surprising when you consider that when an Irish distillery conducted a survey in 2011 about the Irish public’s belief in Leprechauns, 33% of people polled said they were believers, and 55% believed that the magical creatures existed at some point in the past. Even with the deep religious ties of the country, many Irish citizens still practice “fairy faith” (Creideamh Sí,) though it’s less worship than a belief it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Today, we’re going a little further back than the concept of Leprechauns, to a group of magically inclined people called the Tuatha Dé Danann. The legend goes that one of the early clans believed to have inhabited Ireland, the Fir Bolg, watched as a great fog swept over the land. Out of the fog came burning ships, and upon those ships were the Tuatha Dé Danann: a tall, fair race of people (many with the flaming red hair we associate with the Irish) who were skilled in both magical arts and craftsmanship. In fact, one translation of Tuatha Dé Danann comes out to “skilled workers” and the newcomers proved skilled enough that the Fir Bolg agreed to move to Connaught and leave the rest of Ireland to the Danann.
And who exactly told us this story? Irish folklore and mythology was passed down by a long-standing oral tradition—probably the only reason the stories survived to be told—but finally began to be recorded in the medieval period by Monks. The Book of Invasions was written about the history of Ireland around 1150 A.D., and made sure the existence of the Danann was considered fact until the 17th century. Though, as the text said: “The truth is not known, beneath the sky of stars,/ Whether they were of heaven or earth.”
There are many stories about the Tuatha Dé Danann (many of which we hope to cover here for you in future installments!), but perhaps most important are the legends of the four magical artifacts they gathered before settling in Ireland. Dagda was the patriarch of the group, and was known for his never-emptying Cauldron—a particularly potent item for a land oft beset by famine. Next was Lugh’s Spear—the tool of a king, warrior, and master craftsman that was said to have a flaming tip. Similarly, Nuada (the Danann’s original king, before Lugh) brought with him the Sword of Light from which no one could escape. Last was an object we still have today—the Stone of Destiny—which is supposedly able to determine the true High King, roaring so loudly when the chosen one sat upon it that it could be heard across the land (with many a legend about where it ended up, including the time half was stolen from Westminster Abbey and ended up in Scotland.) Numerous exploits in the Danann’s stories involve one or more of these items.
However, these magical items didn’t stop the Tuatha Dé Danann from being defeated. When the Milesians (probably the first Gaels to land there) arrived on Irish soil, they defeated the Danann in two battles before offering them a deal: they would split the land with them 50/50. But the skilled ones had been tricked. The Milesians only granted them the half of the land under the ground, keeping everything above ground to themselves.
The legend goes that the Tuatha Dé Danann retreated underground and may still remain there to this day in the “Otherworld” (Tír na nÓg) where no one grows old and time never passes. This fairy world is said to be entered through fairy mounds and hills, as well as stone circles and even cairns. But as the Danann disappeared, they were said to give way to another generation of magical creatures known as the Aos Sí (or the Fey, the Sidhe, or Faeries)…but that’s a story for another day.
(Okay, one hint: we already discussed one of the Sidhe’s cryptozoological creatures in the first paragraph!)
This is part I of a series. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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